Christian conversion means experiencing Jesus Christ
Jonathan Rowe, 29 January 2023
Galatians 1: 11–16; Matthew 19: 27–30
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I expect many of us wandered into a bookshop, looking for inspiration for a gift. The shelves and tables were weighed down with all sorts of tempting tomes. But one of the most obviously displayed genres was biography. Whether it’s the autobiographical stories of celebrity or sporting lives, or the mercifully less self-referential biographies of historical figures, we seem to love reading about others.
In our reading from Galatians this morning, St Paul offers us a glimpse into his life. Like a modern celebrity, perhaps, he doesn’t always have it easy. It seems that he’s been accused of preaching the gospel in order to curry favour with his audience and so burnish his public image. Paul roundly rejects this accusation. It’s not human favour that he seeks, he says, but God’s. And he goes into some detail to justify himself.
He tells us something of his background and his extra-ordinary zeal for the ‘traditions of ancestors’. These traditions were pharisaic interpretations of the law. Paul tells his readers that he had formerly held similar views to his opponents and had attacked the Church.
Sometimes we are tempted to think that Jesus was a good man. But that’s certainly not what Jews of his day thought. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been crucified. So when Christians claimed that a man who had been crucified as a criminal was God’s anointed one, the Messiah, Paul and his pharisaic contemporaries knew they were wrong – for a crucified person was under the curse. What Christians were claiming about Jesus, therefore, was a threat to the law. And since keeping the law was a way of staying in God’s favour, Paul felt entirely justified in persecuting the ‘Church of God’.
That was then, before his conversion. By using the phrase ‘Church of God’, Paul recognises that his persecution of the Church was an attack on God. That’s worth pondering. Paul made a 180-degree turn – from persecuting the Church to being its leading evangelist. That’s some change! He gave up everything he had and to which he was committed; he left it all.
Most of us are familiar with the story of his experience as he travelled on the road to Damascus. He was, quite literally, ‘blinded by the light’ – receiving a revelation of Jesus Christ in glory and becoming reconciled to God and the believers he was pursuing.
This is why he can say that he received the gospel directly from God, without human intervention. We are familiar with the story. In fact, the conversion of Paul has become a sort of benchmark against which subsequent stories of conversion are measured. And this is both helpful and unhelpful.
It’s helpful because, although conversion can be described from the human side, so to speak, this is not sufficient. For Christian conversion is also an act of God, a movement of the Holy Spirit. In the words of the gospel of John, ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (John 3: 6).
Paul’s conversion highlights, too, the pre-eminence of Jesus. It was an encounter with Jesus that led to his turning from his former way of life.
Any conversion, ours, too, will be marked by these two facets – God’s work as well as our decision – and a focus upon Jesus Christ.
Often conversion is less like the summer sun emerging suddenly from behind a cloud than a weaker winter sun gently encouraging us to turn towards it.
But as well as being helpful, using Paul’s conversion as a model can be unhelpful, for that was Paul and we are different. In particular, it’s quite often unhelpful to think that conversion is instantaneous. During subsequent centuries, the Church came to view conversion more as a process than a sudden about-turn. Of course, there’s a point at which a decision is made. But often conversion is a lot less like the summer sun emerging suddenly from behind a cloud than a weaker winter sun gently encouraging us to turn towards it. I think that’s a particularly helpful image for those of us who were baptised as children and have never known a time we were not Christian.
So, as we celebrate today the conversion of Paul, let us remember two things. First, let us thank God for his coming close to us and sharing his grace, whether suddenly or over time. Second, let’s remember that Christian conversion means experiencing Jesus Christ.
And I pray that all of us here today will be able to say, with St Paul, that we have seen God in his Messiah; in other words, that knowing and following Jesus Christ is part of our life’s story, our biography, too. Amen.